By Alexander Carpenter
I found out about Richard Rorty’s death while at Camp Coast Care after having spent almost a week viewing the ninth ward in New Orleans, driving for several hours though the rest of that wrecked city, listening to brilliant, increasingly effective activists, reconstructing a home of a very poor family on the Mississippi gulf coast, hearing an Episcopal priest call the dishonest and deadly insurance companies “Satan.” Radical Rorty — that grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch — turned truth into tool for action for me and is part of the reason that I am sweaty, dirty, and tired today.
I first read Richard Rorty while riding a Greyhound bus down the California coast. I had picked up his Philosophy and Social Hope at the Notre Dame Hammes book store and had packed it along for some summer reading. What I read then and continued to read radicalized my epistemology, theology, metaphysics, and most directly my ethics. Here’s Jurgen Habermas describing one of those essays in that book.
“One small autobiographical piece by Rorty bears the title ‘Wild Orchids and Trotsky.’
In it, Rorty describes how as a youth he ambled around the blooming
hillside in north-west New Jersey, and breathed in the stunning odour
of the orchids. Around the same time he discovered a fascinating book
at the home of his leftist parents, defending Leon Trotsky against
Stalin. This was the origin of the vision that the young Rorty took
with him to college: philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky’s dream of justice on earth.”
I read this quote in Scott McLemee‘s obituary and it articulated the kind of antifoundational hoping against hope that Rorty taught me turns truth into ethical action.
“My sense of the holy,” wrote Rorty, “insofar as I have one, is bound
up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote
descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty
much the only law. In such a society, communication would be
domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a
matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely
at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated
In part, that holy and always contingent hope drives my commitment to change my faith community and my country.